“The highest geographic density of sporting achievement”: ?How the Kalenjin people came to dominate world distance racing.
In 2017, Nike’s Breaking2 Team narrowly missed out on achieving their mission to break a seemingly unbreakable barrier; running a sub-two hour marathon. After years of research, preparation and testing, Nike selected three top distance runners to undertake the ambitious challenge; Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, ?Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and ?Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea (Hutchinson, 2017). Of significance, all three athletes originate from East Africa.
Kipchoge ended up completing the 26.2 miles distance in a time of 2:00.25. Whilst Breaking2 had failed in their project, the test of human capabilities and evidence of human evolution was clear for all to see.
So how has the human body evolved, over millions of years, from our original ape-like ancestors to the modern professional athlete, who is able to run for extreme distances at a speed that for most people would be classed as a flat out anaerobic sprint?
To understand how the human body is able to cope with such an extreme feat, I will briefly outline evolutionary development from the earliest bipedal hominin to the modern day international elite Kalenjin runner. It is remarkable that a species previously unable to walk on two legs, some four million years ago, is in the midst of completing a sub- two hour marathon.
Almost a century and a half ago, Darwin (1871) highlighted the evolution of bipedalism as one of the key features of the human or ‘Homo’ lineage; allowing the freeing up of the hands for carrying and for using/making tools. The famous footprints from Laetoli in Tanzania show that our hominin ancestors were thought to be walking upright more than 3.65 million years ago. This was confirmed by the discovery of the internationally renowned fossilized remains of ‘Lucy’ in East Africa, 1974 (Roberts, 2011).
All Homo sapiens are scientifically acknowledged to have evolved from the early hominids such as Lucy, a species known as ‘Australopithecines.’ It is thought that Homo sapiens emerged from early primates approximately 4.5 million years ago. Studies have found that these early ancestors were
the first fully bipedal primates; their skeletal structure, especially the pelvis and feet showed they had the ability to walk efficiently on two legs (Roberts, 2011).
It is this ability to travel long distances efficiently on two legs, which allowed the survival of the first hominins across the East African savanna. It is believed that bipedalism enabled them to chase prey over vast distances, scavenging on animal carcasses faster than their carnivorous competitors. This provided the hominins access to rich food sources of fat and protein, which facilitated the evolution of the human brain. In addition to carrying and using tools, bipedalism allowed the hominins to carry food back to their social group, reaffirming Darwin’s evolutionary theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004).
Furthermore, Bramble and Lieberman (2004) believe that modern day endurance running, whilst primarily being a form of exercise and recreation, is rooted in the ancient origin of human existence.
It is this evolutionary process that has led to my interest in East African athletes; specifically the Nandi people of the Kalenjin ethnic group. I wish to explore how and why elite international endurance running has become dominated by such a small population of Homo sapiens.
1.0 East African success
It all began on October 20t? h 1968, on the track of the Estadio Olimpico Universitario, Mexico City set 2,200m above sea level. It was the fiercely anticipated 1,500m Olympic final featuring the US world record holder and pre-race favourite Jim Ryun, lining up alongside the 27 year old wiry Kenyan, Kip Keino. What followed was a feat of athletic superiority as Keino claimed the gold; winning the race in the widest margin of victory in 1,500m Olympic history and setting a new Olympic record in the process.
This race victory has been reported as,
“The Triumph That inspired Kenyan Runners to be Great.”
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, Keino and his fellow teammates ensured Kenya emerged as a dominant world power in distance running after securing a total of seven Olympic medals. The Kenyan male distance runners won x3 gold, x3 silver, and x1 bronze medal in all track events ranging from the 800m to 10,000m (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012). It was only four years prior to these games that Kenya had won their first and only Olympic medal (Samora, 2016).
Fast forward fifty years and Kenyan athletes have gone on to dominate the majority of the most important athletic events which include the: IAAF World Championships, World Cross Country Championships, the Olympic Games and the World Marathon Majors. An example of their superiority includes running 17 of the 20 fastest marathon times ever recorded and winning 18 World Cross Country championships in a row (Tucker et al. 2015). Their astonishing achievements have been described as, “the highest geographic density of sport achievements ever recorded” (Eksterowicz ?et al.? 2016).
The Kenyan middle and long distance dominance is reminiscent of the Scandinavian runners of the early 20th century, unrivalled and prevailing in all 5,000 and 10,000m race events. Since the Mexico City Games, the East African athletes have developed an aura of invincibility, both in their own minds and the minds of their Caucasian opponents (Hamilton, 2000).
As a result, several explanations and factors have been proposed to help explain the extraordinary success, which includes favourable physiological characteristics, genetic endowment, and advantageous environmental conditions (Hamilton, 2000; Onywear et al. 2006). These factors are examined further by Wilber and Pitsiladis (2012) who discuss possible (1) genetic predisposition, (2) development of a high maximal oxygen uptake as a result of extensive walking and running at an
early age, (3) relatively high haemoglobin and haematocrit, (4) development of good metabolic “economy/efficiency” based on somatotype and lower limb characteristics, (5) favourable skeletal-muscle-fibre composition and oxidative enzyme profile, (6) traditional Kenyan diet, (7) living and training at altitude, and (8) motivation to achieve economic success.
This report seeks to examine the contributing factors identified by academic researchers in to how the Kalenjin people came to dominate world distance racing.
2.0 The Kalenjin Tribe
The Kenyan population of approximately thirty million people comprises of forty tribes; 12% of whom are Kalenjin. Despite this minority, the Kalenjin population have won approximately 75% of all major distance running races in Kenya (Manners, 1997) and even more significantly, account for 29% and 34% of all global track medals and elite marathon performances (Tucker ?et al. 2015) (please see Appendix 1).
Further analysis of Kenyan ethnic groups reveals that while medals and elite performances originate from six distinct tribes and seven Kalenjin sub-tribes; it is the Nandi, consisting of 950,000 people (Kenyan census data, 2009), who have won 72 medals (47% of Kenya’s total); a number higher than the combined total of North America, South America, Asia, and Oceania. It has been reported that since 1990, the Nandi sub-tribe have outperformed every continent with the exception of Africa in terms of distance track medals won and elite marathon performances (Tucker et al. 2015).
The Kalenjin have lived for centuries on ?the western rim of the Great Rift Valley (please see Appendix 2), which is geographically significant given its elevation ranging from 1,830 to ?2,450m (Wilber and Pitsialdis, 2012). Many researchers have attributed this elevation as a contributing factor for their success. Furthermore, the Rift Valley sits at the altitude ‘sweet spot’ of between 6-8,000 feet, where red blood cell production increases, but not too much and where the air is thin, but not too thin (Epstein, 2014).
It appears that elite Kenyan runners living and training in the area of the Great Rift Valley have physiologically benefited from living and training at altitude. Wilber and Pitsiladis (2012) suggest that living at altitude has provided the Kalenjin with an innate ability to train at relatively high intensity (defined as anaerobic threshold velocity to VO?2 max velocity) despite the physiological strain and limitations imposed on humans during exercise in hypoxia. It has been inferred as one of the primary factors for the Kenyans’ success in distance running is their ability to train on a consistent basis at running velocities at race pace, or faster, even at altitude.
It has been claimed that people living in thin air for generations have developed acclimatization to hypoxia. Weston et al. (1999) found that people living in high altitude areas were linked with having a lowered oxygen concentration. In order to compensate for the lack of oxygen, the body has to increase the number of erythrocytes that transport oxygen, which at lower altitudes creates advantageous conditions to increase compound aerobic capacity.
With the altitude in the Great Rift Valley being considered, one can argue that the Kalenjin running success cannot be solely attributed to just this. After all, there are many other populations who have existed and continue to reside in areas of similar high altitude. As an example, countries such as Nepal, Peru, and Mexico, are not renowned for producing world class distance athletes. This view is reinforced by the successful Kenyan coach Mike Kosgei (cited Tanser, 1997, p.80) who argues,
“…if running success is based on altitude residence, then why doesn’t Colombia and Nepal produce great runners like Kenya? Our success is based on hard work and attitude, not altitude.”
Overall, it does seem logical to assume that chronic altitude residence combined with moderate-volume, high-intensity altitude training may contribute in part to the exceptional performance of the Kenyan distance runner (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
It has been postulated that the Kenyan distance runners develop a high maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) as a result of extensive walking and running from an early age, which ultimately contributes to their exceptional endurance running performance later in life.
In a study by Saltin ?et al.? (1995), it was found that elite Kenyan runners ran or walked an average of eight to twelve kilometers (km) each day, five days a week from the age of seven years old; increasing to ninety km a week as adolescents. They also found that Kenyan children who did not have to walk great distances to school had maximal oxygen uptakes 30% lower than those required to travel to school by foot. This is reaffirmed by Onywera ?et al.? (2006) who reported that 86% of elite Kenyan runners used running as opposed to walking or vehicle transport, as their main method of travel to school when they were young.
Such evidence strongly suggests that regular running and walking as the chosen mode of transport from an early age is a contributing factor towards enhanced VO2 max and becoming a successful distance athlete.
Another contributing factor put forward by researchers is the Kenyan diet, which is traditionally composed of approximately 10% protein, 13% fat, and 77% carbohydrate. This low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet has been consumed by Kenyan people for centuries, and its composition is consistent with research-based recommendations for endurance-sport athletes (Onyeweru et al. 2006).
The carbohydrate component of the Kenyan diet includes the staples of vegetables, fruit, rice, and unrefined sugar, along with the traditional Kenyan maize dish, ugali?, ?which has a very high glycaemic index. In addition, Kenyan runners drink traditional tea immediately after training sessions and with their meals. This tea, called chai?, ?also has a high glycaemic index and serves as a Kenyan ‘energy drink’ to effectively replenish glycogen stores in the critical period immediately post training when GLUT-4 transport and insulin activity are optimal (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
Although the Kenyan diet appears to be favourable for training and performing in middle and long distance running events, it does not appear to be uniquely different from the training diets of most of their European, American, or Asian competitors and therefore, would not provide a distinctive competitive advantage.
Many sport disciplines show a correlation between the selection of candidates for a particular sport discipline and their specific somatic features. For example, it comes as no surprise that a basketball player’s height greatly influences their efficiency in the sport. It has become clear that not only physical traits (height, width and circumference measurements) play an important role in sport but also body composition: adipose tissue and its location throughout the body, fat free mass or water content in the body (Eksterowicz et al. 2016).
The Kenyans, particularly those from the tribes of the Great Rift Valley, have an ectomorphic somatotype characterized by long, slender legs that are typical of central and southern African tribes
(Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012). Research undertaken by Larsen ?et al.? (2003) studied the anthropometric characteristics of elite Kenyan distance runners and reported that they had 5% longer legs when compared to elite Scandinavian distance runners. In addition, the Kenyan runners had 12% thinner/lighter calves than the Scandinavian runners.
This is reinforced by Epstein (2014), who attributes part of the Kalenjin running dominance to their physical build and ‘distal elongation’ where the lower legs are longer than the upper legs. Combine distal elongation with a very low body weight helps to create a highly energy efficient running economy similar to a pendulum swing. The running economy is the measurement of how much oxygen a runner utilizes at a given pace (Epstein, 2014).
Epstein (2014, p196) further highlights its significance in stating,
“…lower leg thickness expressed in absolute terms is a crucial factor for running economy.”
Based on this, Epstein (2014) believes that one could predict the outcome of a middle distance race according to the measurement of the competitor’s ankles and calves.
Thus, it appears a reasonable argument that the innate ectomorphic somatotype of elite Kenyan runners may contribute in part to their success on the track and roads via enhanced biomechanical efficiency (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
4.2 Lipid Metabolism
Despite the overwhelming dominance of high-intensity endurance running events (3,000–10,000 m) by Kenyan athletes, there have been very few scientific studies that have been completed to clarify the physiological differences between African and Caucasian distance runners (Weston ?et al.? 1999). It has been hypothesised that Kenyan runners have enhanced skeletal muscle oxidative enzyme capacities in comparison to Caucasian athletes.
In a study by Saltin ?et al. (1995), examining muscle biopsy samples of the gastrocnemius and vastus lateralis, there were no significant differences found in the percentages of type I (slow twitch) muscle fibres between elite Kenyan runners (72.6%) and elite Scandinavian runners (67.7%). One would have expected that the more successful endurance athletes; the elite Kenyans, to possess a greater density of type I fibres, providing them with the ability to continue muscular contractions for a longer period of time without fatiguing.
Whilst this was not the case, the study did significantly find that the Kenyan runners had a higher enzymatic activity of hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase (HADH), which acts as a key enzyme involved in lipid-generated energy production. Thus, it is possible that the Kenyan runners may be able to generate energy more efficiently from lipid-based sources than some of their competitors.
According to Larsen ?et al?. (2003), the Kalenjin tribe is described as possessing a higher concentration of HADH enzymes in their skeletal muscle, stimulating better utilization of oxygen and therefore decreasing the production of lactic acid. As a result of this process, it is suggested that the Kalenjins are able to transform oxygen into energy in a much more efficient manner.
It may therefore be argued that whilst this could provide the Kenyan runners with a slight advantage in the relatively long distance events (half-marathon and marathon) in which lipid-based energy production is a factor, it does not fully explain their success in the shorter distance events (800m, 1,500m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m) in which lipid metabolism is less of a contributing factor to competitive success than glycolysis (Wilson and Pitsiladis, 2012).
Mike Kosgei, the Kenyan former Head Athletics Coach stated,
“Our success is based on hard work and attitude…”
(Kosgei cited Tanser, 1997)
Some researchers have suggested that one of the primary factors for the Kenyans’ success in distance running is their ability to train on a consistent basis at running velocities at race pace, or faster, even at altitude (Wilber and Pitsialdis, 2012).
Elite Kenyan runners living and training in the Great Rift Valley region employ a traditional approach to altitude training, which involves living and training at their naturally high altitude. As previously discussed, it appears that they have the innate ability to train at relatively high intensity despite the physiological strain and limitations imposed on humans during exercise in hypoxia.
This is reinforced by a study of 31 elite male Kenyan distance runners, who were divided into two groups based on their 10,000m personal-best time:
1. International elite = 28:15 and;
2. Elite = 28:54.
Interestingly, the elite runners (28:54) ran 10% further on a weekly basis and 2.4 times higher at lactate threshold velocity (vLT). However, when comparing the weekly distances ran at VO?2?max velocity (?vV? O2max), the international elite runners completed 7.8 km versus 0 km in the elite runners. Thus, it appears that the ability to train effectively at altitude by running at high-intensity velocities, most specifically at their vVO2max is one contributing characteristic that distinguishes the Olympic-level Kenyan runners from their European, American, and Asian competitors (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
Therefore, it seems logical to assume that the Kalenjin chronic altitude residence and moderate-volume, high-intensity altitude training may contribute in part to their exceptional competitive running performances (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012)
6.0 Motivation to win
Rural Kenya has a reported a living monthly wage of approximately $120 (Anker and Anker, 2016). In addition, Kenya still reports an unemployment rate of approximately 40%, and about half of the Kenyan population lives below the World Health Organization (WHO) poverty line (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
Being a successful runner in Kenya can translate into economic and social advancement for the athlete for the rest of his or her life and can have a similar positive effect on the runner’s immediate and extended family. Fuelling this motivation for economic and social success is the great ‘tradition of excellence’ that links today’s outstanding Kenyan distance runners to their legendary predecessors (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
With significant prize monies on offer, it is no surprise to find that eight out of the top 11 lifetime prize money marathon runners are Kenyan (Association of Road Racing, 2017) (see Appendix 3). Single marathon races such as the Dubai Marathon can award competitors up to $200,000 prize money (see Appendix 4). This substantial sum of money alone is significantly higher than the average Kenyan would earn in their entire lifetime. It is these sorts of financial rewards on offer, which can provide the Kalenjins with the motivation and desire to pursue running as a means to financial security.
It is not just prize money on offer to the elite athletes, but also the sponsorship and endorsement deals that are a product of their track and road running success. It is well documented that Nike is the main sponsor for Kenyan elite runners and you only have to visit Nike’s website to witness this (please see Appendix 5). Nike (2018) actively promotes the Kalenjin elite sponsored athletes as ‘Champions of Natural Motion’ with the marketable tag-line:
“Kenya’s Kalenjin tribe is a culture raised on running, Gold medallists, world champions and record holders seem to be born here daily.”
It is clear that any affiliation or endorsement from a world-leading company such as Nike would bring significant economic reward to any Kenyan athlete. With the financially life-changing rewards currently on offer, one can understand the Kenyan motivation to train and compete in the sport of running. However, prior to the commercialisation and popularisation of track athletics and marathon running that we see today, historically these events have not been so lucrative. This provides an argument to suggest that financial reward cannot be the determining factor of Kenyan and Kalenjin dominance.
In contrast, Onywera ?et al. (2006) reported that over one third of Kenya’s elite distance runners attributed economic success as their primary reason for training and competing. This was noticeably higher than other potential motivational factors such as, “Olympic glory,” which only 14% of the Kenyan elite runners listed as the main reason they ran (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
A prominent catalyst for this economic shift came towards the end of the 1980’s with the appointment of Mike Boit to the role of Kenya’s Sports Commissioner. Boit, a former Kenyan Olympic medallist gave athletes opportunities through providing them with passports and inviting agents into the country. Tucker ?et al.? (2015) believe these changes facilitated the increased exposure to competition and the resultant dominance of Kenya in international running events. In the case of the marathon, commercial factors associated with runner agency, including sponsorship, prize money, and bonus payments, would have created a large economic incentive to succeed.
This supports the contribution of cultural factors to success within a relatively small population, where early generations of successful athletes inspire subsequent generations to adopt distance running for economic rewards. Therefore, it has been hypothesised that there are now increased opportunities, better access to improved coaching, and significantly better economic incentives on offer (Tucker ?et al?. 2015).
6.1 Pain Threshold
Benjamin Bloom is an educational researcher who has studied hundreds of outstanding achievers, from world class musicians to elite athletes. From his research he summarises that prior to committing themselves to dedicated practice and training; these extraordinary people did not show any ‘naturally clear’ talent. Their success was more as a result of their continued motivation and commitment, along with a network of support which enabled them to rise to the top (Dweck, 2017).
The study previously discussed whereby the international elite runners trained significantly higher at their vVO2max velocity is a clear indicator of their commitment to dedicated training and ability to withstand pain. To be able to run at your vVO2max velocity during competition is one thing, however, to reach such intensity in training takes something more.
It has been well reported of the Kalenjin initiation rituals, known as Tuumwek, which can take place from as young as twelve years old for both boys and girls (Fish and Fish, 1995). This initiation ritual signalled a ?transformation from childhood to adulthood among the Kalenjin and involved circumcision procedures. Following circumcision, the young men would be put into seclusion for instructions about the skills necessary for adulthood. They would then be expected to begin a phase of warrior hood during which they would act as the military force of the tribe. Circumcision for girls on the other hand prepared them for marriage (Fish and Fish, 1995).
Warner (2013) writes about the enormous social pressure the Kalenjins placed on the ability to withstand and tolerate pain and goes on to describe the tribe as a ‘pain embracing society.’ As a result, within a traditional Kalenjin society, pushing through pain isn’t only a desired trait, it’s also considered part of what makes you a man or a woman.
With this cultural factor ingrained in Kalenjin tradition, it may come as no surprise that the Kalenjin runners are able to translate this social trait into their physical training and competition. In applying Darwinian evolution theory and concept of “survival of the fittest” one could argue this is what separates the elite runners from the international elite runners; the ability of the international elite runners’ to train at higher intensities (vVO2 velocities) for sustained periods. This requires great perseverance to push their bodies to the limit, despite the pain they will undoubtedly endure.
Gladwell (2008, p.1) describes an Outlier as being:
“A statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.”
Given the global dominance of the Kalenjin in middle to long distance running, Outliers would be a fitting description for this Nandi sub-tribe who have accumulated more distance track and marathon race medals than any other continent (Tucker ?et al.? 2015).
From the vast research examining the Kalenjin tribe, it is clear there is no one single determining factor that is shown to be more conclusive in explaining their athletic superiority. It would also be too simplistic in attributing the success to widely assumed environmental factors such as high altitude residency.
Domination of individual sports by countries or regions of the world is not a new phenomenon. It seems that the presumed causes of such domination are often recycled, out of date, and based on misinformation and myth.
With this in mind, it would be fair to conclude that it is a combination of contributing factors which take place within an optimum environment for talent to rise and develop.
If we revisit the study by Saltin ?et al?. (1995) and Onywera (2006), who reported the majority of elite Kenyan runners ran an average of eight to twelve kilometers (km) each day, five days a week from the age of seven years old as their main method of travel. When calculated, this alone equates to 40-60 km per week, 2,080-3,120 km a year. This means that by the time that young Kalenjin reaches 18 years old they would have accumulated between 22,880 and 34,320 km, simply as their main mode of transport. This does not take into account the dedicated practice; be it track, cross-country, continuous or high intensity interval training any young, aspiring athlete may undertake.
I believe this is one of the most significant contributing factors, based on its stark contrast to how their competitors growing up within a western society would have travelled from such a young age. Kenyan society has unintentionally created an environment which facilitates the young, aspiring Kalenjins to thrive. Without the existing poverty and poor infrastructure within Kenya, one could argue that the Kalenjin dominance may have never taken place.
In contrast, historically dominant nations such as Britain, Finland and the USA have become increasingly wealthy, overweight, interested in other sports and therefore, less likely to train seriously in distance running (Epstein, 2014).
The hypothetical model shown below helps to explain the extraordinary success of the Kenyan distance runners combining: biomechanical and physiological factors; alongside the training volumes, intensities and altitude; in addition to the psychological high motivational desires.
(Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012)
In closing, it would be naive to believe that there is a single overriding genetic, physiological, or psychological factor that can explain the extraordinary success of the Kalenjin distance runners. Current research has found little genetic traits and few physiological (e.g. VO?2?max, skeletal-muscle-fibre characteristics) or haematological advantages (e.g. total haemoglobin mass, total blood volume) that can conclusively explain the unique success of the Kalenjin runners (Wilber and Pitsiladis, 2012).
8.0 Winning at all costs
I have chosen to include this chapter following the conclusion as I did not want to smear or overshadow the enormity of the Kalenjin running successes.
However, as I delved deeper into my research, I was more and more frequently coming across alarming news reports of doping scandals within athletics, implicating Kenyan athletes. Prior to the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, Kenya was initially deemed “non-compliant” by the World Anti-Doping Agency before being reinstated. In the five years leading up to the 2016 Olympics, 40 Kenyan track and field athletes failed doping tests (Walker-Khan, 2017).
Standard Media (2018) quoted the Athletics Kenya executive committee member Barnabas Korir in saying,
“Kenyans are still in denial. It is time we faced this problem head on. Let us accept that there is a problem and agree on how to deal with it.”
To further highlight this issue, the recent high profile doping case involving ?Jemima Sumgong; ?the 2016 Olympic Marathon champion who tested positive for the banned substance EPO, a synthetic drug used to boost red blood cell production (Walker-Khan, 2017).
In the same article, Moses Kiptanui, a Kenyan steeplechase world champion explained how in the current situation,
“Marathon runners failing dope tests was almost becoming normal.”
(Standard Media, 2018)
Omulo (2017) reinforces the extent of the doping problem within Kenya and believes the ?Kenyan middle and long distance success has been marred by doping cases involving elite athletes.
It would appear the issues and sensitivity towards doping amongst the Kenyan athletes is becoming increasing prevalent and is not merely an isolated incident. Having carried out vast research into the Kalenjin running dominance, brings with it a sense of romanticism and undoubting belief in their superhuman athleticism. However, I am now left incredulous and seek further clarity in whether or not doping is in fact one of the contributing factors omitted from all research to date, and an area of study that I would like to explore further in the future.